Relieve I-75 traffic, link Tampa, Jacksonville

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A South Marion Citizen editorial

There’s a move afoot to help rectify significant traffic issues on Interstate 75. A group dubbed the I-75 Relief Task Force recently formed for the purpose of helping the state in addressing transportation needs.
One of the considerations involves a road that many in Marion County don’t even know exists. It’s called the Suncoast Parkway, and connects the highway maze in Tampa to U.S. 98 in Hernando County.
It’s a toll road, part of the Turnpike system, but for Marion County folks is almost unreachable. It’s also not a pleasant highway, with no rest areas along the entire route.
Two key issues arose at the recent first meeting of the 22-member task force:
Intense volumes on traffic between the Florida’s Turnpike/I-75 connection in Wildwood northward up I-75 to Gainesville.
Where the Suncoast Parkway should go after it’s extended from U.S. 98 to State Road 44 in Lecanto, which is in the works.
The task force is in its very early stages, and taking a broad view of the possibilities is necessary and appropriate. Big nuggets for consideration, however, include whether it makes sense to recommend simply widening I-75, or if a new corridor is best in the long run; and, if the state should fund rail service to provide traffic relief to the interstate system.
Environmental concerns, impacts on communities and land, and costs all will factor in to what the state ultimately decides which is best and achievable. In addition, public input is welcomed by the task force and should hold sway in the process.
While the Suncoast Parkway 2 extension into Citrus County was once planned to veer northwest and feed onto U.S. 19 at Red Level north of Crystal River, it’s clear that relief to I-75 and a Tampa-Jacksonville connector are more pressing needs. Traffic demand on U.S. 19 from Crystal River to Tallahassee is nominal in all but a few small cities, such as Chiefland, Cross City and Perry.
While widening I-75 — particularly from Wildwood through Gainesville — is a logical consideration, there’s a limit to the practicality. Widened interstates lead to more interchanges and that leads to more traffic — vs. traffic relief. Visions of mega-multi-lane thoroughfares around Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago come to mind, as well as the mess that is Orlando and Orange County. That’s not what we want.
As for visitors to Florida, building upon our success as a destination should be factored into the task force’s considerations. What form of transportation network would best serve visitors and make for pleasant — or at least not nightmarish — traveling? To a great degree, what’s best for visitors would be best for Floridians, too.
To that end, extending the Suncoast from Lecanto toward the Gainesville area, through Western Marion County, then northeasterly across the state to Jacksonville seems a good compromise, understanding that all options come at a huge cost.
The I-75 Relief Task Force meetings are open to the public and input is sought. Individuals can attend meetings and speak up during the public comment period; or, provide comment online at I75relief.com. The next task force meeting is 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 25, at the Citrus Springs Community Center.
Of all the factors to be weighed by task force members, public opinion is as important as any. Listen, weigh the options and make your thoughts known.